VSA ruminates on divestment resolution

On Sunday, Feb. 17, the resolution in support of divestment from fossil fuel industries was proposed for a second time in Vassar Student Association (VSA) Council, and subsequently tabled again to the Student Life Committee.  The Council began with a forum with Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann ’79 and Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration and Director of Investments Stephen Dahnert.

The tabling of this resolution is the latest setback to the divestment proposal, which has been in the works since September. “Vassar needs to commit to figuring out how to do divest[ment], and publicly,” wrote Noah Bogdonoff ’14, a co-coordinator of the divestment campaign, in an emailed statement. “We need to actively engage in the national dialogue even if we know that our managers aren’t going to sign on right away. When we make our collective voice heard, people will begin to listen. More people will begin to talk. And when people begin to talk, politicians begin to listen.”

Begemann began the forum by describing the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), which has discussed the divestment proposal for several weeks. After the discussions are finished, it will make a recommendation to the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC), which will report to the Board of Trustees.

At one point, CIRC member Dahnert, expressing his personal views only, said that he strongly opposes divestment. He views the campaign as well-intentioned but misdirected. “First and foremost, divestment as proposed is highly impractical for Vassar given the structure of our investment portfolio,” he wrote in an emailed statement.  “Any such divestment would be costly to Vassar and could severely impair our ability to generate strong, consistent investment returns, undermining the endowment’s sole purpose:  providing financial resources in support of our educational mission. This is not just due to the potential loss of these specific investments, but because the proposal as written could effectively require us to leave many of our investment managers (co-mingled funds) where we cannot select individual investments, and also severely constrain the universe of available investment options going forward.”

During the forum and subsequent discussion of the resolution, VSA Council members pointed out several times that goal of the divestment proposal is to make a political statement and not necessarily a practical impact on fossil fuel industries. “We know that divestment won’t cripple the fossil fuel industry from an economic perspective, but it will show our politicians just how desperate we are for some true leadership,” wrote Bogdonoff in an emailed statement. “Rallying has not worked; lobbying has not worked; suing has not worked. We’re not giving up on those tactics, but we recognize that they’ve been robbed of their efficacy. We need something new, a strong stance linked to a symbolic action. Divestment is exactly that.”

Bogdonoff continued, “It’s become increasingly clear that the only way to mount sufficient pressure is to take a strong stance like divestment–to say to our politicians, ‘You have not done your job. You haven’t regulated the fossil fuel industries.  You haven’t stopped them from exploiting our land, water, and health. So we’re going to use the only tool you’ve left us–our money’.”

Dahnert, however, believes that divestment would have no impact whatsoever on the targeted companies, whose stocks are successful and in high demand. Instead, he advocates for staying invested and having a voice in the companies’ policies shareholders. “Vassar has voted proxies on equities held in our name for many years, and we have also on occasion written letters to corporations in which we invest, stating our position on important issues… While I recognize that we will not be able to effect significant changes immediately with any companies through shareholder engagement, I think we stand a much better chance of influencing corporate behavior if we are an investor than if we are not.”

Dahnert labels divestment a “feel-good measure” that does not address the core problem. “Divestment will not harm targeted companies or cause them to change their business practices, nor will it reduce carbon emissions,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “And it could cause some to conclude ‘we’ve done our part’ when they should instead be focused on the actual problem: consumption… I would encourage those who are passionate about this issue to become engaged in activities that actually will help reduce emissions.  The primary emphasis should be on reducing consumption, which is what drives the energy industry.”

When the motion to table the resolution was made for the first time on Sunday, the coordinators of the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign were hesitant. The students cited their months of preparation and the need to get on the Board of Trustees’ agenda this semester. Begemann had mentioned during the forum that the campaign should aim for the May Board of Trustees meeting. After subsequent discussion, the presenters conceded that they would like to spend some more time making the resolution clearer and more effective.

“I do support the resolution being tabled, especially since the reason for doing so was to make it stronger, more irrefutable,” wrote Bogdonoff in an emailed statement. “Our conversations have indicated that the Council recognizes how important divestment is, which is incredibly heartening. Everyone on the campaign looks forward to bringing this back to the table and getting it passed.”

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